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Native plants are those that were growing in a particular area prior to European settlement. North Carolina has a wide variety of native plants because of our diverse landscape of coastal plains, swamps, piedmonts and mountain areas.
Native plants aren’t just for people who have acreage to devote to restoring prairies. There are many reasons to consider using native plants in your home landscape.
Since native plants have been here for so long, they are adapted to our climate—the temperature extremes, the rainy periods and the occasional droughts. They are also comfortable growing in our soils. This means that they don’t need a lot of coddling in the form of extra water, fertilizer or soil additives.
Many native plants have deep roots that soak up rainfall and reduce runoff of nutrients and chemicals that pollute our lakes and groundwater.
Native plants support many more species of insects than do introduced or alien plants. You may not think this is important, but it is. Yes, there are some insects that sting, bite or otherwise irritate us humans, but 99 percent of them provide food either directly or indirectly for most other animals. This includes humans. If insects were to disappear, the human race would soon follow.
In contrast, alien plants support very few species of insects. Have you seen “pest free” in a plant description? That is not always a good thing. Yes, insects will leave the plants alone, but that plant is not making any contribution to the ecosystem in which it lives, other than to sit there and look pretty. Not that looking pretty is a bad thing, but there is certainly a native plant that will look just as pretty and do some good as well.
Here is an example. Phragmites is an ornamental grass that came to this county from Australia more than 300 years ago. In its native Australia, it supports 170 species of insects, while even after three centuries, it supports only five in North America. Phragmites is just recently becoming an extremely invasive plant in wetlands throughout the eastern U.S. and in the Pacific Northwest, another hazard of alien plants. You never know when conditions will become favorable for their populations to explode and crowd out native plants.
Even if you can’t bring yourself to care about the millions of insect species, what about birds, something many gardeners enjoy watching? Baby birds do not eat seeds and berries. They need insect larvae to survive. If the landscape is a sterile one comprised of alien plants that don’t support insects, those baby birds will not thrive and may avoid that landscape.
Alien plants are great as a focal point in your landscape but keep the above thoughts in mind as you plan your landscape. Nature optimizes the ecosystem in every area and if we “muck” with the balance and introduce non-native varieties, we often get results we didn’t expect.
Send your gardening questions or comments to: Brunswick County Master Gardener Column, P.O. Box 109, Bolivia, NC 28422, or call 253-2610. Enclose a self-addressed stamped envelope if requesting information or a reply. Answers may be printed in this column.